PM Pediatrics
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Dr. Christina Johns
Senior Medical Advisor, PM Pediatrics

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Your Teen and Their Screen

Friends, last week I was an epic parent failure. All week long. Why, you ask? I’m confessing openly here in the hopes that there are a few other kindred spirits out there who understand my shame. Here it is–I think my 13 year old had screen time for no fewer than 6 hours PER DAY while he was on vacation. The first day, I rationalized that since it was his first day off from school it should be a total free day without a single care. Sometimes we indulge our kids like that when we can, right? Well he took full advantage.

This pattern repeated itself.

Several days running. I got him outside to shoot baskets for a little bit each day, but he didn’t want to do much else. As if I needed another moment to bear witness on the grip that screen time has on all of us, I saw it happen in my own home.

Instead of exclusively looking back totally negatively, I’m trying to project forward to winter break coming up in a few weeks and share my experience to help prepare all of us so this doesn’t happen again. I’m putting it out there publicly so that in case you didn’t deal with this electronic vice over the last break, you’ll think about it in anticipation of this next one.

I’ve tried not to deploy the nuclear option of making him put it on my bedside table at night out of his room or something similar because I’m trying to get him to practice some self-regulation and discipline on his own. In a few years he’ll (hopefully) be off to college and (again, hopefully) be far enough away from my bedside table that he can have as much screen time as he wants if he chooses, so getting into good habits now seems like the right thing to do. (If it goes well, which is a big if.)

Hourglass with violet sand measuring time against white background

So when winter break comes around next, I’m going to try the following:

  1. Recruit my kid into buying into the rationale of why self-regulation in this area is important. He’s mature enough to understand this, at least a little. If he can at least fundamentally agree that too much screen time isn’t good for him, then I’m off to a reasonable start.
  2. Agree TOGETHER on a few absolute rules: no devices during meals, and internet safety is a non-negotiable.
  3. For every hour on electronics, 2 hours must be spent off – this doesn’t include time spent sleeping.
  4. Make it clear that electronics are a privilege not a right, and privileges must be earned. We will set the parameters for what that means together. My mom did this when I was growing up, and when we set the ground rules together it was an honorable treaty, kept by both parties.

These are simple but big, in my opinion.

I know that there are a lot of suggestions out there about putting parental controls on computers and scrutinizing games and apps before allowing kids to play on them, and I think this applies well to younger kids, but for older kids it seems like as parents we need to do more to prepare them to evaluate for themselves what’s out there in the digital world. We should assist with their decision making and guide their critical analytical skills but keep the ownership as primarily theirs as much as possible. Good decisions and responsible behavior earn freedom, and a positive feedback cycle is hopefully the result.

Smartphone with icons of social media on screen on green wooden table. Smartphone life style smartphone. Starting social media application whatsapp, viber, facebook, instagram, twitter, pinterest. Photo taken in Business center November 13 2017

I can’t guarantee that any of this is going to work at my place.

While I’m not totally naïve about the pervasive nature of social communication, gaming, and available YouTube videos, I’m sure that I’m not fully in the know about what and how much my child has seen. I’m doing my best to stay abreast though, which is I think the effort that we all try to give our kids each and every day.

Let me know if you have other strategies to deal with older kids and screen time, and I’ll share them so that we can pick and choose what might work best for any given child. Let’s put our collective brains together for the benefit of the young adults around us.

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